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How to Haiku | simplified

What is Haiku (Hai coo)?
Haiku is a poetic form and a type of poetry originating from Japan. It is seventeen-syllable verse form, arranged in three lines of five, seven and five syllables.

Haiku combines form, content, and language in a meaningful, yet compact form. Haiku poets write about everyday things. Many themes include nature, feelings, or experiences. Usually they use simple words and grammar. Haiku doesn't rhyme. A Haiku must "paint" a mental image in the reader's mind. This is the challenge of Haiku - to put the poem's meaning and imagery in the reader's mind in ONLY 17 syllables over just three (3) lines of poetry! Haiku captures the ordinary moments of life.

Haiku is an insight into a moment of experience.

History of Haiku
The hokku or haiku is a tiny verse form in which japanese poets have been working for hundreds of years. Originally it was the first part of the tanka, a five-line poem, often written by two people as a literary game where one writing 3 lines, the other, 3 lines capping them. But the hokku, or three-line starting verse, became popular as separate form.

The greatest of haiku writers and the poet who crystallized the style was Basho (1644-1694). In his later years he was a student of Zen Buddhism. Following Basho in time and fame was Buson (1715-1783) and third great was Issa (1763-1827). - from Japanese Haiku by Peter Beilenson

Traditionally a haiku poem consists of 17 unrhymed syllables organized in 3 lines:
Line 1 : 5 syllables
Line 2 : 7 syllables
Line 3 : 5 syllables.

Following is an example of Matsuo Basho's famous Haiku:
"Old Pond"

furuike ya
(fu/ru/i/ke ya):
5 syllables

kawazu tobikomu
(ka/wa/zu to/bi/ko/mu):
7 syllables

mizu no oto
(mi/zu no o/to):
5 syllables

its roughly translated as:

old pond,
a frog jumps.
sound of splash!

The cutting divides the Haiku into two parts, with a certain imaginative distance between the two sections, but the two sections must remain, to a degree, independent of each other. Both sections must enrich the understanding of the other.

Another Basho classic:

hatsu shigure

saru mo komino wo

hoshige nari

the first cold shower.
even the monkey seems to want
a little coat of straw.

Most haiku poems refer to some elements of nature. They express a moment of beauty which keeps us thinking or feeling. The most important thing to remember is that the thought should come first, and then consider adjusting the syllable count. Each Haiku must contain a kigo, a season word, which indicate in which season the Haiku is set. This is a short cut, costing the poet only one or two syllables, whereby the reader can immediately comprehend the weather, the foliage, the bird and insect life and the emotions traditional to the season. For example, cherry blossoms indicate spring, snow indicate winter, and mosquitoes indicate summer, but the season word isn't always that obvious.

A flowering plum
and a nightingale’s love song.
he remains alone.
- Kobayashi Issa

Here is a simplified template for a beginner's haiku:

Where it happens,
What is happening,
When it occurs.

. adopted from Writing poetry with children

Haiku and Zen Philosophy
The shortness of haiku poems is a reflection of Zen philosophy, which emphasizes being in the moment. Unlike other poetry, haiku generally do not use metaphor or obscure imagery, nor do they reflect the feelings or inner life of the poet - at least in an obvious way. It is rather an expression of egolessness in which the poet turns outward to fully experience and capture the essence of being in a particular moment at a particular place. - Zen and the Art of Haiku

Zen Buddhism has significantly shaped the historical development of Japanese haiku. Not all the haiku poets were Zen Buddhists, but several key figures were. Basho was Zen trained, and ordained as a priest, but he did not seem to make up his mind if he was a priest or not. In one of his travel sketches he describes himself as being dressed in a priest’s black robe, "but neither a priest nor an ordinary man of this world was I, for I wavered ceaselessly like a bat that passes for a bird at one time and for a mouse at another." He did not have a parish and priestly duties, but he often wore the robes.

Issa lived for several years in monasteries and took his name from the Buddhist ideas of emptiness and change. "Inasmuch as life is empty as a bubble which vanishes instantly, I will henceforth call myself Haikaiji Issa," he wrote. Haikaiji means "haiku temple" and Issa means "one tea," signifying a bubble in a cup of tea.

In Zen Buddhism there is a great enlightenment called satori, sought through many years of disciplined meditation. There are also many little flashes of enlightenment, called kensho, which are intense forms of those everyday noticings that surprise us or please us because they seem to reveal a truth, or to be exemplary, or to connect us again, momentarily, with the sense of awe. Haiku is a momentary, condensed poetic form and its special quality is that it is perfectly adapted to give the reader that little instant of kensho insight. Basho developed the haiku form so that each haiku became a little burst of awakening. It is this that is the essence of haiku, not its number of syllables. Some haiku are explicitly about moments of kensho, and words like "awakening" are the clue:

Awakened at midnight
by the sound of the water jar
cracking from the ice.
(Basho, trans. Hamill) via Haiku and Zen

Haiku and Healing
Some experts consider haiku as a spiritual art form that promotes deep spiritual healing among its practitioners (haiku composers) and readers. Haiku is a form that is deceptively simple. The apparent simplicity is part of the attraction many feel to writing them. One don’t feel intimidated. One don’t feel like he has to twist the brain cells into a metaphorical lotus posture to come up with complex, highfalutin commentary on life. The recognition that writing haiku is something we can do is also a part of the healing effect.

A tradition among prisoners sentenced to death is to be allowed to choose their last meal. A tradition among Zen monks is to write a last haiku when they know that they are about to pass out of this life. Some of these haiku have been collected into the book Japanese Death Poems by Yoel Hoffman. It includes this poem by Gozan, written on December 17, 1789, at the age of 71:

the snow of yesterday
that fell like cherry petals
is water once again.



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Technology of the Heart: How to Haiku | simplified
How to Haiku | simplified
Technology of the Heart
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